What state policies on teaching evolution do and do not accomplish in Tennessee classrooms
Wednesday, October 16. 4:10pm
(snacks / drinks at 3:50pm)
Public polls suggest that fewer than half of Americans accept the science for evolutionary origins of humans; a finding that has led to calls for more robust teaching of evolution to K-12 students. One approach to ensuring evolution is taught has been to push for more extensive coverage of evolutionary theory in state science education standards. One such push occurred in Tennessee in 2008—evolutionary concepts were added throughout state science standards, with the greatest pre-high school coverage occurring in 8th grade. I conducted research in several Tennessee school districts from 2009-2012 to understand the implementation and impact of these new standards for teaching evolution. Despite ambitious efforts by the Tennessee Department of Education to ensure statewide implementation, multiple factors undermined the impact of the evolution standards. First, a relatively small but influential phone and email campaign led to the replacement of the term “evolution” in the standards with the phrase “change over time,” with very different connotations. Second, many teachers—particularly those who were personally motivated to avoid the topic of evolution—chose to teach evolutionary concepts in a disconnected manner that fulfilled their mandate to teach the science standards while downplaying substantial claims about origins. Finally, students opposed to evolution were able to exercise their own agency to avoid learning the material or to otherwise confirm their beliefs about weaknesses in the theory. The fate of efforts to increase acceptance of evolution through state science standards provides important lessons for how scientists, educators, and policymakers approach education about other topics that are controversial among the public, such as climate change.